Science / Technology and Health

Psychology student researchers key contributors to state pandemic project

February 22, 2021

Developing critical content for the Washington State Department of Health’s Behavioral Health Strike Team offered an unexpected opportunity for Seattle U psychology students.

When Kira Mauseth, PhD, senior instructor in psychology and her colleague, Tona McGuire, PhD, responded to the 2010 Haiti earthquake, they had no idea that it would launch behavioral health training which would, in turn, prepare them to lead the Washington State Department of Health’s Behavioral Health Strike Team through a pandemic 10 years later. Mauseth also had no idea that it would create opportunities for Seattle U psychology students to immerse themselves in critical, real-time research in response to a global natural disaster.

“We were deployed with a group to Haiti,” says Mauseth. “A nonprofit invited us to come to their school on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince and set up an emergency clinic to respond to the overwhelming need. Sitting on the plane on the way home afterward, we agreed that we needed to leave something more tangible behind.

“We realized that there is little about the nature of direct service in disaster behavioral health that specifically requires a PhD or a license. We thought, ‘we can teach high school students who no longer have schools. We can teach college students who want to help their communities. We can teach community leaders how to support people from an evidence-based, psychosocial perspective.’”

Mauseth and McGuire responded by creating a curriculum called Health Support Team and returned to Haiti to provide culturally adaptive and culturally appropriate training to more than 400 people. They then took the curriculum to Jordan with Syrian refugees. They continued local training through the Disaster Clinical Advisory Committee and Northwest Health Care Response Network, engaging first responders, doctors, nurses, community members—anyone with an interest in disaster response.

When the Department of Health began designing the Behavioral Health Strike Team as one of the rapid response deployment teams for emergencies in the state, Mauseth and McGuire were poised to accept their positions as co-leads.

“Whether the emergency is a school shooting or a flood or a landslide, strike teams move in in and support the community,” explains Mauseth. “They offer training, resources, whatever is needed to bolster local efforts typically from anywhere from one to two weeks.”

They outlined the Behavioral Health Strike Team organization and structure in the summer of 2019 as part of the larger Behavioral Health Group at the DOH. In January 2020, just as the team felt they had found their footing, COVID-19 appeared on their radar.

From the beginning, the Behavioral Health Strike Team made it a priority to position the pandemic as a natural disaster. “It isn’t what many think of as a typical natural disaster,” says Mauseth. “I emphasized that in our educational materials, making it the opening of all of our guidance documents. It is an important distinction when we talk about the behavioral health impact.”

Student Research in Action

The team worked to craft the specific response advocacy plan for Washington providers, hospitals and health systems to prepare for what residents are likely to experience. They created presentations, trainings and written guidance materials, creating a forecast of emerging needs and issues as the pandemic approached.

Developing all that critical content offered an unexpected opportunity for Seattle U psychology students. “We had a wealth of information that we needed to organize and share, but our team members didn’t have the capacity to sit down and focus on the literature review and background library searches to find the latest data,” Mauseth says.

As the university faculty member on the team and a previous practicum supervisor, Mauseth realized the potential for students. “During the pandemic there are fewer options for students to get practical, real world experience, Mauseth says.” She took the idea to Department Chair Kathleen Cook, who immediately came on board.

“Seattle U students are perfect for this work! They are all well trained to work with the extant literature, synthesize information and critically assess the quality of research.”

They solicited student resumes, then interviewed applicants to compose a team of student researchers spanning majors including chemistry, psychology, public affairs and criminal justice.

“They have provided exactly the support I hoped for,” Mauseth says. “They are advancing the guidance documents and reports we are putting out by being on the ground, doing their research. And they are matching the pace as disaster response is inherently very fast and not anything like the usual academic or research cycle. I am really proud of the behavioral health component of disaster response that our state has put together. These students and their contributions have been an integral part of that.”

Behavioral Health in the (Virtual) Classroom

Mauseth is highly aware of the impact this natural disaster has on her students.

“I struggle with a lot of the common responses we have to disasters. I don’t remember things, I don’t track things as well. I know these are normal reactions and that my students are experiencing them, too,” she says.

At the beginning of Fall and Winter quarters, she started the first days of class with the acknowledgement that students are in the middle of a disaster, how it affects people mentally and emotionally and what one can reasonably expect.  She says, “I emphasize messages of resilience, that we will get through this.”

Looking forward from this vantage point, Mauseth sees potential for her own research into resilience. “The Seattle U education seems to be prepping students to be not just responsive, but also adaptive. The ingredients for resilience are purpose, connection, adaptability and flexibility and hope. I suspect, given my experience this year, if we can look at adaptability and flexibility specifically, I think resilience is going to predict successful outcomes in the workplace environment and for students more than anything else than we've ever measured before.”